Rare Hainanese 'salt & pepper' mooncakes created in S'pore in 1920s to cater to poor families

First created in a confectionery along Purvis Street.

Joshua Lee | September 13, 2020, 10:54 AM

The Mid-Autumn Festival is upon us again and so is the onslaught of mooncakes.

But how much do Singaporeans know about something they have been putting into their mouths since time immemorial?

Yes, the mooncake was one of the Chinese customs our ancestors brought along with them to Singapore.

So, it might come as a surprise for some to learn that Hainanese mooncakes, also known as salt-and-pepper mooncakes, originated from a confectionery along Purvis Street -- which makes them a unique Singapore creation.

Hainanese Salt and Pepper Mooncakes

Hainanese salt-and-pepper mooncakes are called Su Yan Bing (酥盐饼) in Chinese.

If you've never heard of these, it's because they are very rare these days.

First created by Nam Tong Lee, a Hainanese confectionary along Purvis Street in the 1920s, the mooncakes were actually inspired by Shanghainese Su Bing (酥饼) or flaky biscuit.

It cannot be found back in Hainan.

Hainanese mooncakes in the distinctive Nam Tong Lee boxes. Courtesy of Simon Goh.

According to a descendant of the family who ran Nam Tong Lee, these mooncakes were created because poor Hainanese families could not afford the relatively expensive Cantonese mooncakes.

The confectionery then decided to create their own mooncakes, which were smaller and cheaper than regular mooncakes.

Ingredients that go into making the filling include: Fried onions, lard, salt, white pepper, rose-flavoured white sugar, sesame seeds, melon seeds, and dried wild tangerine skin peel.

This gives the mooncake a distinctive blend of flavours, including umami, sweet, tangy, and slightly spicy.

Achieving this balance of flavours is difficult, making it hard to replicate.

Hainanese mooncakes from Nam Tong Lee. Courtesy of Simon Goh.

Where to get Hainanese Mooncakes

Unfortunately, due to family conflict, Nam Tong Lee closed its physical shop in 2006.

The business is still being run by the third-generation owner Wong Eng How, who produces the mooncakes in a Batam factory and ships them over to Singapore daily.

The Nam Tong Lee mooncakes (S$18 for a box of eight) can be ordered via Hainan Xiaochi, a Toa Payoh hawker stall that specialises in rare Hainanese delicacies:

Alternatively, Chuan Ji, an offshoot of the original Nam Tong Lee also offers the Hainanese mooncake (which they call Hainanese Flaky Biscuit).

They sell it at S$28 a box containing two rolls of five pieces.

Chuan Ji's Hainanese mooncakes (or flaky biscuits). Via Facebook.

Lastly, Amethyst Pastry & Cakes, a small bakery in Bukit Panjang, sells the Hainanese Pepper Salt Crispy Mooncake (S$6 each, S$45 for eight).

This has a flaky exterior and contains dried fruits, nuts, and spices.

They also sell a variant (Hainanese Fusion Mooncake) containing the same filling, but with a baked Cantonese crust for the same price.

Hainanese Pepper Salt Crispy Mooncake. Via Amethyst Pastry and Cakes.

Hainanese Fusion Mooncakes. Via Amethyst Pastry and Cakes.

Different varieties of mooncakes

There are other types of mooncakes that you can find in Singapore.

Most of us are accustomed to Cantonese-style mooncakes, which have a baked exterior encasing lotus paste.

Originating from Guangdong province, it is the most common variety in Singapore.

Via Wikipedia.

You might have also come across the Teochew variety, the most common being the flaky pastry containing yam paste.

Via YouTube.

There is also the more traditional Teochew mooncake, which looks like a white disk containing sugar, citrus peel, five spice powder, and topped with white sesame seeds.

This type of pastry is called la bia ("la" refers to pork oil) and hails from the Chaoshan region in China.

Traditional Teochew mooncake. Image credit: Thye Moh Chan.

Even more obscure are the Hokkien and Hakka varieties.

The Hokkien mooncake resembles a white moon and was traditionally given to scholars who sat for the imperial examinations in ancient China.

Hokkien Mooncake. Via Makansutra.

They were known as "scholar cakes" and size did matter — the best performing scholar would receive the biggest cake, which could weigh up to 750g, according to the Michelin Guide.

These scholar cakes have a sweet filling comprising candied winter melon, melon seeds, tangerine peel, sugar, and lard.

There's very little information about Hakka mooncakes, but according to the Michelin Guide, they are made of glutinous rice flour and sugar and were traditionally used as offerings to the moon.

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Top images by Chuan Ji, Simon Goh.